Sunday, November 11, 2007

Salience, and Sheep

The thermometer on the front porch said it was forty one degrees when I walked the dog this morning, but it felt colder than that to me. There was no frost, but ... maybe it's because there's a little bit of a breeze, which always makes it feel chillier. I raked last weekend, so of course, this week all the leaves relaxed their hugs on their favorite fair-weather branches, and descended to their favorite yard: mine. You know where I grew up there was nothing like this, the stickers don't fall off a cactus in the fall, and it doesn't change color. We had two seasons in Phoenix, hot and not-as-hot. Occasionally you'd see a thin layer of ice on the irrigation, not often. When people say they "love the seasons," I assume they grew up Out East here. I like it, but it doesn't stir the life-force in me or anything.

So when I got up this morning of course the first thing I did, after walking the dog, turning on the coffee-maker, and dialing in WPFW, was to fire up the computer and see what's on the blogs. And the first thing I looked at linked to this story:
WASHINGTON - A top intelligence official says it is time people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, a deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguards people's private communications and financial information.

Kerr's comments come as Congress is taking a second look at the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act. Definition changing for people's privacy

It's probably not a big story, I haven't gotten to the newspaper yet, but I'm guessing The Post doesn't have it. It's not really a big story because everybody already knows about this.

The government wants to manage your privacy.

Does that sound okay to you?

The theory is that if the government knew everything that was going on, they could prevent terrorism. If they knew what everybody was doing, what everybody was talking about, then all they'd have to do is, when two guys are saying they're going to hijack a plane and bomb some buildings or whatever, they'd go to their houses and arrest them or at least put them under surveillance. That sounds fine, catching terrorists, I'm against terrorists and so are you.

I am going to talk about salience.

Imagine the government got its way and the omnipresent recording devices picked up two guys planning to rob a bank. Just two ordinary nonterrorist bad guys who know where a bunch of money is and want to take it for themselves. You'd want the government to interrupt that, wouldn't you? How could they not? Or if somebody was planning a murder -- the government couldn't just sit back and let somebody kill somebody, just because it wasn't officially terrorism, could they?

Of course not.

Imagine a married guy went to a motel room with a prostitute. Make it better, imagine a preacher went to a motel room with a gay prostitute, and they snorted meth and had wild gay monkey sex. How could the government ignore that? They should at least contact the preacher's wife -- it'd be a crime not to try to save their marriage.

You can see that, having opened the door for catching terrorists, you've opened the door for everything else, too.

But you won't hear this guy sitting in front of a Congressional committee remarking that they'd better mind their p's and q's, because the government would have to tell their spouses if they had a romantic dinner with that cute intern.

The word salience is a good one. Here's a nice online dictionary definition:
adj 1: having a quality that thrusts itself into attention; "an
outstanding fact of our time is that nations poisoned
by anti semitism proved less fortunate in regard to
their own freedom"; "a new theory is the most
prominent feature of the book"; "salient traits"; "a
spectacular rise in prices"; "a striking thing about
Picadilly Circus is the statue of Eros in the center";
"a striking resemblance between parent and child"
[syn: outstanding, prominent, spectacular, striking]
2: (of angles) pointing outward at an angle of less than 180
degrees [ant: re-entrant]
3: (heraldry) represented as leaping (rampant but leaning
forward) [syn: salient]
n : (military) the part of the line of battle that projects
closest to the enemy

Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention. You gotta admit, that is an interesting word.

Look how it works here. The government guys come in and say, "Terrorists are everywhere, and we have to protect ourselves from them. Because we don't know who the terrorists are, we have to keep track of everyone." By itself, that almost makes sense. Well, the first sentence is bull-oney, but it is widely believed, and politicians have defined their own norms and behaviors in such a way that they are forced to pretend it is true. But if terrorists are everywhere, you have to watch out for them.

So the stern, white-haired men of Capitol Hill listen to the testimony, nodding gravely, and they vote and next thing you know the government is collecting all our personal information and videotaping us wherever we go.

This happens because of the salience of terrorism. Terrorism has a way of "thrusting itself into attention," and it is possible to have an entire conversation on the topic without noting any of the less salient facts about it. Like, you won't hear it mentioned that the vast majority of terrorist incidents in the US are the acts of rightwing extremists. You won't hear anybody mention the fact that there actually isn't very much terrorism here, unless it's somebody trying to claim credit for eliminating it -- the actual probability of any American being the victim of a terrorist attack is incredibly small, even given that there was a relatively large number of victims in two attacks in 2001.

Because terrorism is so ugly, so violent, so unpredictable, people think about it more than it deserves: it is salient, it thrusts itself on your attention. People think it makes sense to go to extreme lengths to protect ourselves from terrorism. Never mind that lots of things are more deadly: cancer, heart disease, car accidents -- think about this, more Americans have been killed in the Iraq war than were killed in 9/11. We aren't obsessed with terrorism because of its expected utility (say, the probability of an event times the cost if it occurs), we are obsessed with it because of its salience.

So these lawmakers pass laws handing our privacy over to the government because they're thinking about terrorism. Nobody sits in front of the committee and reminds them that people do other things that might not be on everybody's list of recommended practices. People cuss, they spit on the sidewalk, they turn and watch a pretty woman walk by ... Do we want the government to manage that information, too? It wouldn't be hard to mail you a ticket when you spit on the sidewalk, I'm sure that technology exists. What if the pretty woman stops and looks back, and a conversation is struck up between two married strangers? And what if this emotionally-charged couple strolls arm in arm through the shadowy canyons of a big city, sharing their most intimate feelings? Does the government need to do something about that?

The chances that an illicit romance catches fire are immensely greater than the threat that any two people who meet on the street are planning a terrorist attack. Yet one gives up their privacy the same as the other. And it seems impossible to me that the government could really permit adultery that it knows about. After all, marriage is our greatest institution, it would be criminal to let one crumble when you could prevent it.

But illicit romance will not be the topic of discussions in Congress about privacy. They won't talk about people buying contraband on the street, the people who roll through stop signs at a quiet intersection, teenagers who have fuzzy dice on their mirrors, but all those things will be sacrificed when the government manages our privacy. We act like it's just our phone calls and email, but, listen, terrorists already don't use phones and email to plot their stuff. Dime-bag drug dealers know better than that, you can be sure international terrorists do, too. I read once that some of the 9/11 terrorists used to sit out in their car, parked on the street, and talk a lot. That's where you'd catch them. You have to be able to listen to private conversations, and observe people's movements when they think they're alone.

There are little things we do during the day that break some rule or another. I don't know how you live without doing that. And a government that knows all will know about those things. But because they are not salient as the decisions are being made, because the Congressmen only talk about terrorism, they can accidentally give away the whole Bill of Rights.

It is a most interesting fact about a democracy like ours that sometimes bad guys get away. It's part of how the system works. Fascinating, but that's just how it has to be. You might think somebody broke a law, but you have to go into a courtroom and prove it to a bunch of ordinary Joe Schmoes, and if they don't buy it the bad guy goes free. Even if the government knows for sure he did it, sometimes he's going to escape without being accountable. That's the paradox of freedom. The law, from Day One, tells not only what the citizens can't do, but what the government can't do to the citizens. It definitely means that some criminals get away with it, but it also reduces the number of good people who are convicted falsely, and it guarantees us all freedom from government intrusion into our private lives.

By making terrorism salient and ignoring the real but less salient day-to-day implications of these new privacy laws, Congress and the President are making irrational decisions that we will regret for decades.

But of course that's not what I'm thinking about this beautiful morning. I'm thinking about our poor County Council downtown, considering this gender identity nondiscrimination law, which they'll vote on Tuesday.

My own opinion on the law first, just to get past that. I understand the arguments of those who think that particular groups of citiens should somehow earn the respect of their community, so that discrimination against them goes away on its own without government attention. Man, I wish that would happen. I think there can be some unintended backlash from nondiscrimination laws that is not nice, and not necessarily immediate, some long-term effects. And I can even understand the queasiness and worry that some people have about people who change their gender; but again, I think that's because it doesn't happen very often, and people just don't have experience with it. My own opinion, after about a million years of living on the surface of this planet, is that some people really do need to have somebody watch out for them, people really do need to be required to treat them fairly, even if they don't want to. And that includes transgender people, who are mistreated probably more than anybody.

Having said that, the most important thing is that the community makes decisions like this intelligently. There are going to be many points of view in our county, people who do and don't have an opinion about nondiscrimination laws, people who have positive, negative, and neutral opinions about ambiguous gender identities, and these people need to talk among themselves and decide whether they think it is worthwhile to pass a new law that prevents discrimination against people who have nonstandard gender identities.

The Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum have decided this will be their new issue, and they have applied their usual approach to it.

They know that most people in our county don't mind if "gender identity" is added to the list of things that you can't discriminate against, most of us feel it's okay to give persecuted people a fair break. But most of us also don't want to have men going into the ladies room, leering at urinating women.

So the CRC changed the subject, and pretended that this law is about that.

You see them out there marching with their signs -- none of the signs address the topic of discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The signs are about the "danger" of men going into the ladies room, as if the only reason guys don't go into ladies rooms now is that there isn't a law against discriminating against transgender people.

Discrimination against transgender people isn't salient. It's hard to picture it, because there aren't very many of them it's hard to imagine that it happens very much, it just doesn't thrust itself into attention. But the image of perverted guys peeking at innocent ladies in the shower does thrust itself into attention. We've seen a gazillion movies with perverted guys sneaking up on women. We go to a lot of trouble to keep the sexes separate when we use the toilet, and a guy in the ladies room would violate a boatload of social norms. The image is salient, and one thing psychologists can tell you is that people overestimate the probabilities of salient events and their consequences.

The law that is proposed adds a new category of people to the list that already exists, and in reality, there will be almost no effect. The current list says you can't discriminate on the basis of age, race, religion, color, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, national origin, or marital status. So they add "gender identity." Who's going to notice? Maybe it will help a couple of people, but basically this kind of law gets passed every day. It's straightforward humdrum legal stuff, lots of communities have included this wording and nothing happened except that some people were able to insist on getting served at a restaurant or being hired on the basis of their qualifications for the job.

That humdrum stuff will never be salient to anybody. But perverted men lurking in the ladies room, hey, people will pay good money to see a movie about that.

There is a problem with relying on salience. Salient things "thrust themselves" on your attention, which is the opposite of you directing your attention toward important things. It means your attention is being controlled by some external event. You look at the world around you, there are a million things there. Somebody points out something to you, you look at it, you are focused on one thing out of a million. I say "Look at that cat," and you think about the cat. You don't think about the tree, you don't philosophize about my motives, you look at the cat and think about it. Maybe the cat is the most interesting or important thing in the environment at that moment, and maybe it's not. Maybe I am saying "Look at that cat" so I can pick your pocket. Maybe while you're looking at the cat you miss the beautiful and unusual blue hue of the autumn morning sky. When you focus on one thing you miss the rest of it.

When you let other people control your attention you are helpless. To think intelligently you have to look outside the frame of reference, on your own incentive, or you are a sheep to be herded by whoever holds the staff that you yourself have given them. If you just think about the things you're told to think about, you are nothing, really, in the existentialist sense. You are simply a malleable object that can used by someone else to advance a goal you yourself may be unaware of.

I have built a research paradigm on the importance of people sharing information and information-processing techniques, working together to expand their knowledge and solve problems. We are not islands, but you don't just turn your mind over to somebody else. If somebody says, "This law is about men going into ladies rooms," you might want to take that possibility into account. You should consider whether that will actually happen, whether men really will go into ladies rooms. If you're interested, you might look at the law, but you don't even have to do that. Just use your head. Are guys going to go into the ladies room? Of course not. You don't just accept it because somebody said it.

Some people are able to put things in perspective, and some, it seems, are not. Some people seem to "think" by finding out what their authorities, or their friends, or whatever, think and then thinking that. No rational person, looking that this bill in our county, would think, on their own, about men lurking in the ladies room. Well, you might ask, how does this bill affect that, but nobody would think this bill would actually cause men to hang around the ladies room. Somebody at the CRC realized this could be a salient ploy to support discrimination against transgender people, given that there really is no rational excuse for it, and so they pretended that this was going to happen, that the bill was about men going into ladies rooms, and once they said that, their whole community jumped in, sheeplike, acting as if it were really a serious concern that men would lurk in ladies rooms. All they needed was the salient image, and there they went, baa-ing their ridiculous assertion over and over again.

By changing the subject, the CRC was able to create the impression that there is a controversy about being fair to people. This morning's Washington Post has several articles about the situation. There was a big email campaign, ads on the rightwing radio shows, I understand the County Council got a lot of email from people, almost all of it about men lurking in ladies rooms, a little bit about the actual topic of the bill, which is gender identity nondiscrimination.

I am not so gullible as to think that clear thinking will ever catch on in a big way. I don't expect the world to turn into geniuses all of a sudden, and if they did I'd be left behind. There is some variation in the ability of people to take perspectives, and there is also some ability to learn perspective-taking, to learn how to think outside the given frame. Our culture, I'm afraid, has become very narrow about accepting what we are told, uncritically. I don't know how to reverse this trend, except that one by one people establish a sense of independence, of objectivity, until a critical mass is achieved and we can actually show public appreciation for our independent thinkers. It has to start with you. Take responsibiility for your own beliefs. Disagree with your friends, with your authorities. You don't even have to do it out loud, but stop, think about things a little bit, listen to your own heart and decide how you really feel. Because otherwise this whole thing goes downhill fast.

Well, look, here I've downed a whole pot of coffee, and it's noon already. The dog is sleeping in front of the heating vent, and WPFW has gone on to the next show, which seems to be big-band music that doesn't really do anything for me. Time to start ticking items off the honey-do list.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Salient post Jim. :)

November 11, 2007 1:33 PM  

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